Not dead, just resting


It became a classic example of a techno-Utopian prophecy gone awry. The notion of the “paperless office”, which dates back to the 1960s, sounded plausible enough. As computers began to spread and display technology improved, it seemed obvious that more and more documents would be written, distributed and read in electronic form, rather than on paper. Filing cabinets would give way to hard disks, memos and reports would be distributed electronically and paper invoices and purchase orders would be replaced by electronic messages whizzing between accounts departments.

What actually happened was that global consumption of office paper more than doubled in the last two decades of the 20th century, as digital technology made printing cheaper and easier than ever before. Not even the rise of the internet stemmed the tide. The web’s billions of pages provided a vast new source of fodder for the world’s humming printers. Although e-mail did away with much paper-based correspondence, some older, technophobic bosses insisted on having their e-mails printed out so they could scribble their responses in pen for their secretaries to type in and send off.

Yet the prediction seems to be coming true at last. American office workers’ use of paper has actually been in decline since 2001. What changed? The explanation seems to be sociological rather than technological. A new generation of workers, who have grown up with e-mail, word processing and the internet, feel less of a need to print documents out than their older colleagues did. Offices are still far from paperless, but the trend is clear. So does this mean that other apparently discredited technological prophecies might also benefit from a similar reversal of fortune?

A closer look at the ones that have staged comebacks suggests three ways in which they could. The paperless office shows how a sociological shift can make the difference: although the technology did not change very much, its users did. In some cases, however, straightforward improvements in technology turn things around. A good example is the internet itself. The prognostications of the dotcom era were shown to be extravagantly wide of the mark when the bubble burst in 2000-01. But many dotcom business models had been predicated on the wide availability of broadband internet connections, which for regulatory reasons spread more slowly than expected. As broadband grew, many predictions made during the boom—about the value of online advertising and the volume of e-commerce, for example—came true after all, albeit a few years late.

A third way in which seemingly moribund technologies can be revived is through an external shock. Perhaps the best example is the electric car. The dream has always sounded promising—oil will not last forever, after all—but the reality consisted of odd-looking cars with limited range. A plunge in the oil price in the late 1990s and the cancellation of the EV1 by General Motors in 2003 seemed to sound the death knell for electric cars. But growing concern about climate change, worries about energy security and a spike in the oil price have since effected an astonishing turnaround. Carmakers are now racing to build petrol-electric hybrid vehicles, and these are widely seen as steps on the way to all-electric ones.

The comeback kids

If social, technological and external factors can make supposedly discredited predictions come true, what technology might be next in line for a revival? Videotelephony is one possibility. It has never lived up to its depiction in science-fiction films, even though millions of people now carry mobile phones capable of video calling. Just as supermodels sparked a trend for carrying small bottles of mineral water around, perhaps a celebrity endorsement or a sudden teenage craze will trigger a wider social shift that prompts people to use the technology. Similarly, technical breakthroughs may yet revive the fortunes of fusion power, which has been 50 years away for decades, and hydrogen-powered cars, which are perpetually ten years from mass production. As for external shocks, concern over climate change is already prompting some environmentalists to rethink their opposition to nuclear power and genetically modified crops. Make an electronic note to yourself: remember the paperless office and never say never.

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